More girls being recruited and abused by county lines drug gangs
Representatives of local government say the exploitation of children and young people by county lines drugs gangs is a “significant and increasing concern” for councils.
Girls and young women are being deliberately and increasingly recruited into drug-dealing ‘county lines’ gangs and subjected to horrific acts of sexual violence, representatives of local councils have warned.
The Local Government Association (LGA) says the pandemic has fuelled county lines activity, with ruthless gangs targeting vulnerable people to carry and sell drugs from borough to borough and across county boundaries. It says during COVID-19, criminal gangs have even dressed children as keyworkers to deliver drugs.
National Crime Agency (NCA) figures estimate that at least 14.5% of referrals were flagged as county lines last year, compared to around 11%in 2019. Abianda, a London-based project which rescues and supports victims of county lines has also reported a 35 per cent increase in referrals during COVID-19.
Although those involved in county lines are predominantly male, the LGA has warned the involvement of girls and young women is “underestimated and growing”. They say this is because females are considered less of a suspicious target compared to males and may be increasingly asked to carry drugs and weapons as they are less likely to be discovered by public services.
However, the consequences of joining a county lines gang can be horrific and life-threatening. Gangs use violence, intimidation, sexual exploitation as well as offering money or drugs to threaten people to stay in the group. Young women have been raped, passed around dealers as “gift girls” as reward for making profits, and even shot at.
Abi Billinghurst, Founder and Chief Executive of Abianda, says there should be increased awareness of county lines gangs’ recruitment of women.
“There are a vast number of young women who go unrecognised, under the radar. They've always been involved; it's just nobody's ever looked under the stone to find out.”
A 2019 report from the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, found that at least 27,000 children in England have been identified as “at high risk of gang exploitation” of a county lines gang and the risk of young adults being exploited has increased as many have lost their jobs or were furloughed during COVID-19.
According to a Public Health England report, there are thought to be around 1,000 different county lines operating across the country, each generating an estimated £800,000 a year in criminal profits. Children aged 15 to 17 are those most commonly identified as victims of county lines exploitation, but children as young as seven have been known to be recruited by gangs.
Gangs have increased their recruitment activity during the pandemic and related lockdowns by targeting young people ‘hanging around’ on local streets, the LGA warned, adding that gangs often deliberately target care homes, foster care, and supported housing.
An increase in drug dealing is usually linked to an increase in serious violence – gun crime, knife crime, theft and robbery, and homicides. Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, says that to tackle county lines activity there is a need to focus on multi-agency working to address the root causes of serious violence and put greater emphasis and investment towards early intervention and prevention.
“The harrowing exploitation of children and young people by county lines drugs gangs, including the increasing trend to recruit females, is a significant and increasing concern for councils who are working hard to identity and protect those at risk of abuse,” Bramble said.
“However, to robustly tackle serious violence requires multi-agency working across a range of partners, including health, education, local councils, the police and the voluntary sector.”?
The LGA is also calling for Violence Reduction Units – currently in 18 police force areas – to be extended to all police forces in England and Wales and for them to have five years long-term funding, rather than year-on-year commitments. It also wants to work with the Government to invest fully in children and youth services, which it says is key to tackling serious violence.
“Many of the current Violence Reduction Units set up are making in-roads on identifying and tackling county lines – but this needs to be on a national basis if it’s going to have a real impact,” Bramble added.
“Councils’ youth offending teams have an exceptional record of reducing youth crime and making a real difference to young people’s lives, but they are under huge pressure after seeing their government funding halved over the last decade.
“We want to work with government to help it understand these pressures and how it can provide appropriate funding for children and youth services to prevent children from being exploited and ensure the right support is available for all young people, whatever their needs.”
Find out more about the Rescue and Response County Lines Project: https://www.abianda.com/rescue-and-response
Read the Public Health England report ‘County Lines exploitation: applying All Our Health’: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/county-lines-exploitation-applying-all-our-health/county-lines-exploitation-applying-all-our-health
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